Sunday, April 12, 2015

Poverty: Isn’t That the Name of a New Fragrance?

Pass the tap water, please.

I did not plan to post a new blog today. I was waiting for a time in the near future when I could tie it in with my latest novel campaign, once it gets started. (Did someone just drop a hint?) But I saw a post on Facebook today from Gwyneth Paltrow that I guess you could say “inspired” me share. You can also say it did something else.

I of course have never met Ms. Paltrow, and more to the point I can live with the fact that I never shall. Insofar as her acting chops are concerned, I liked her some years back in a film version of Jane Austen’s Emma. But after that she became, for me, one of those stars whom I felt was overrated. She won an Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love, a film in which she spent most of her screen time supposedly passing for a man, and I found her utterly unconvincing as such. She was okay in The Talented Mr. Ripley, but in a smaller part Cate Blanchett acted her off the screen. Since then, she hasn’t done anything of distinction that I am aware of. Though she bears a physical resemblance to poet Sylvia Plath, I thought Paltrow gave a listless performance in Sylvia, as if acting the part took time away from shopping. (I’ll bet you didn’t know I am a frustrated film critic.)

This is a subjective process I’m sure we all go through with various people in the limelight. There are stars we “like” and stars we do not. If you admire her acting, you are entitled to your opinion.

For what it is worth, I also have never found her physically beautiful. Attractive, certainly, in an ordinary, cheerleader sort of way. But when she is called one of the world’s beautiful women I don’t get it. Sometimes she has been compared to Grace Kelly. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; look below and decide for yourself. And again in my opinion, Kelly was a better and more interesting actress.

Some of us are old enough to remember a concept called the Peter Principle. It came from Laurence J. Peter, and the upshot was that if you seem good at what you are doing, you will then be promoted to a higher position and thereby rise to your “level of incompetence.” Peter was writing about the business world and management, but I think it can be adapted to other arenas. In the case of Paltrow, an attractive and somewhat talented actress (with parental show biz connections) rose to a status that magnifies how undeserving she is to occupy her current status.

In more recent years, Paltrow has received bad press for saying all sorts of things that make Marie Antoinette sound like a bag lady. Her utter lack of empathy, understanding or even token interest in those less fortunate than herself has provided fodder for standup comics as well as serious criticism. One presumes that a publicity agent or some such told her she needed to change her image by coming across as a concerned citizen, even if lowly Americans do bore her. Turning to politics, she told us how handsome President Obama is. And now she has turned to SNAP (i.e., food stamps) to show us how hard it can be for a poor family to live on $29 a week for food. This I do not doubt for a moment. But sometimes princesses live a bit too happily ever after, and her supposedly eye-opening photo of what $29 of groceries looks like says far more about Princess Gwyneth than it does about being poor. 

Oh no, how can I stretch out this bunch of Kale or cilantro (someone else said it was parsley) for a week? What will it do to my complexion? Cook with only one fresh clove of garlic? And why does gluten-free have to cost extra? We need our vegies, and of course we must buy them fresh. And look at these . . . these egg things, which are not even free range. And surely you do not expect me to eat white rice instead of brown? What would my nutritionist say?

As it happens, Yours Truly spent a number of years doing the starving artist bit, and while I don’t know about my art I sure was good at starving. Actually, I was poor anyway for having to live on my own as a minor. I was very bad at cleaning toilets or emptying public trashcans, so when I became a busboy/dishwasher, I thought I had it made. I still remember that my lowest-paying job of all time was for $1.25 an hour. So I might as well say I was an artist.

For the benefit of Ms. Paltrow and her ilk, here is how I did my grocery shopping:

You think in terms of bulk—what can be stretched out for as long as possible for as little money as possible. You buy big bags of potatoes, and lots of rice, pasta, and popcorn (which you pop yourself). Drink tap water (your main beverage) with the popcorn and it will fill up your stomach. Buy lots of bags of dried beans, for big pots of chili. Or split pea or lentil soup with two extra ingredients: water and salt. Pasta is bought in 16 ounce (not 12 ounce) packages, and like everything else you go for the cheapest—the supermarket brand.  Also get the supermarket brand of a large container of oatmeal (rolled oats)—again, it's filling, especially with a glass of powdered milk.

Speaking of which, supermarket brand macaroni and cheese is cheaper than Kraft. Tomato paste can be thinned it out as needed. Powdered milk tasted okay once it was in the fridge for a couple of days, and you can use it just as powder to make pancakes; just add flour, water, and baking soda. If you can afford oil (though the actual recipe calls for clarified butter), you can make a huge amount of equal parts green split peas, yellow split peas, and rice. It’s some sort of Indian appetizer as I recall, but for pennies you have dinner for a week. Tell people you are on a macrobiotic diet. On those rare occasions you treat yourself to a candy bar (or maybe that's all you can afford), you again buy by the ounce. Three Musketeers was the best deal in my day, even though I didn’t like it much.

If meat is your thing, go for the cheapest hot dogs, regardless of what goes into them. You can get a bit of ground beef to throw into the chili or spaghetti sauce you make. For a time, I lived where a supermarket sold beef with soy additives for a cheaper price, and I got that. Plus, for example, if you live near smaller shops, you can buy day old bagels or meat that’s gone bad. Douse the meat in a ton of cheap wine to kill bacteria, and there you are. If you splurge and buy tuna, you buy the cheapest dark meat brand. A “sandwich” usually means an egg salad sandwich—if you’re lucky enough to afford sandwiches.

You also have to keep in mind how much you can carry, because you may or may not live near a bus stop, and you may or may not have enough money to ride the bus. Living day to day, week to week, buying a collapsible grocery cart for yourself may seem prohibitively expensive.

Poor families, I imagine, do some variation of what I have described above. Kids, yes even poor kids, can be fussy eaters, so the situation, I’m sure, gets more complicated. (How much did you like to eat leftovers when you were a kid?) I sometimes had roommates, and once, when nothing else was left in the cupboards, I made us a sumptuous graham crack crumb lasagna (don’t ask).

I’m not here to discuss why people are poor or how much aid should go to the poor. I’m just saying, if you are poor, this is what it can be like. And let’s not forget that what I lived on would be considered a feast in some parts of the world.

Plus there was, in hindsight, something positive that I learned, because if need be I can live like that again. Which, in today’s uncertain economy, is good to know. In general, I believe eating should not have to cost a lot of money, and even though I can afford it I do not eat out often and still shop looking for food items on sale, and so forth.

Oh, and there was one other thing I did. I made sure I had a lot of friends so I could hit them up for a few bucks here and there, or raid their refrigerators when they weren’t looking. Or sometimes, when really, really hungry, even when they were. In addition to the moral implications of this practice, it also meant that I rarely stood up for myself or made any waves whatsoever out of fear of losing a precious friend. So I got used to feeling I did not have the same right to freedom of speech as other people. In some ways, I regret this more than anything else.

No, I have never visited the Goop website.